Arts/Culture
8:26 pm
Mon February 7, 2011

Imported from Detroit? You bet.

I didn’t really watch the Super Bowl last night. I only flipped it on toward the very end to see what had happened. I also logged onto my Facebook page about the same time, and was floored to see my newsfeed exploding with updates, nearly all variations on one theme: “Imported from Detroit.”

I was curious to know what this was all about, and fortunately some helpful people had already posted links to the Chrysler 200 ad featuring Eminem. It begins with the familiar stark images of Detroit—the bleak industrial landscape, the vacant and decaying buildings. Then a growling, defiant voice: “I’ve gotta question for you. What does this city know about luxury?”

“What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?”

The response is an unfolding visual narrative that was a surprisingly moving tribute to Detroit’s aesthetic and cultural beauty. Underlying it all is a frank admission that the city has been to hell, and it may still be somewhere near hell-ish. But like Diego Rivera’s gorgeous murals that depict Detroit in its industrial heyday, the ad also finds beauty in Detroit’s hardscrabble nature. It issues a defiant challenge to recognize that beauty, but offers no apologies to those who won’t.

So why did the commercial resonate so deeply with my friends and other similarly jaded folks, even the ones who could care less about Chrysler? Apparently, it’s that very defiant and unapologetic tone.

“The commercial punched back just like the Joe Louis fist it pictured and just like Detroiters are doing, whether the rest of the country recognizes it or not,” says Sandra Svoboda, a writer for the Detroit weekly Metro Times and a transplant from the Chicago area. “Detroit's taken a beating -- sometimes rightly so. But while the rest of the world sees ruin, we see opportunity. Imported from Detroit? You bet.”

Peter Zeiler, a former Detroiter who now resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, says the ad provoked questions from his colleagues about whether some of the ad’s shots were real or computer-generated, because “they had no idea Detroit could be so good-looking.”

Zeiler says “the ad really hammered home with me because of its honesty and defiance:”

 

“It frankly acknowledges that Detroit has been to hell and back again (the narrator’s tone on that phrase is a pitch perfect "F*** you, I don't need pity, but until you been there, shut up") but the products made there are still fantastic. Using the artist with the most Grammy nominations is a not so subtle flipping of the bird that says "You may laugh at us, but you're buying our music—AND our cars.”

 

Of course, we don’t know whether this ad will actually sell any Chrysler 200’s. But it’s a remarkably bold marketing strategy from a company whose name is hardly synonymous with luxury.

Chrysler rolled out the 200 (backed by the same Eminem beat) at last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. There, CEO Sergio Marchionne proclaimed the company’s “resurrection,” and firmly linked the automaker’s fate with Detroit’s when he told reporters: “I wanted to make sure that this is not just about the resurrection of Chrysler. It is about the resurrection of Detroit.”

At the time, this struck me as remarkable. After all, Marchionne is also head of Fiat, the Italian automaker that has a 25% stake in Chrysler and is poised to take over even more. For all intents and purposes, Chrysler is run by Europeans. I thought the “Made in the Detroit” branding was just a redressed version of “Buy American,” with the Detroit emphasis played up at NAIAS.

It seems my assumption was wrong. The ad’s style and details (like this American flag flying over the site of the demolished Tiger Stadium) show an uncanny understanding of Detroit’s true heart.

“I also think it was exceptional because it came from a major company that was promoting some social awareness within their advertisement,” says Kyle Phinney, a former Detroit resident who now lives in Brooklyn. “It feels as though someone with a large voice has come along to echo what so many of us have been saying all along: Detroit really is a great town.”

Obviously, Chrysler’s appeal to social awareness and their assertion that “it’s as much about where it’s from as what it’s for” aren’t merely benevolent. They’re hoping to sell cars. And at the end of the day, a commercial is hardly a social revolution.

But they’ve also tapped into a kind of daring hope along with defiance. Something about Detroit continues to stir the imaginations of people all over the country and the world. It has a certain epic quality about it.

Of course, “epic” isn’t always a good thing.

“I've watched the ad three times now, and each time I've gotten teary, in the same way I do during Return of the King when the horse lords charge at Pelennor Fields,” says Nancy Kaffer, a reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business and a transplant from Alabama. “Since that falls firmly under the heading 'epic last stand,' I don't know what my gut is telling me about Detroit.”

Still, Kaffer says, “I loved the commercial. I love the city. It made me want to stand up and cheer, and possibly scream, "In your FACE, rest of the country!!"